Unnoticed guests.

The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) recently released a report in which he exposes the existence of a foreign intelligence partner-controlled technological “capability” inside the headquarters of the GCSB, NZ’s 5 Eyes-affiliated signals intelligence collection and analysis agency. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) governing the way in which this “capability” was used was negotiated from 2008 through to 2012, and the system went operational in early 2013. It continued to do so until 2020, when it supposedly suffered a systems failure and the equipment was removed.

The IGIS became aware of its existence while investigating an unrelated, different foreign partner-operated “capability” in the GCSB in recent years. What he found about the 2013-2020 “capability” was troublesome on several levels.

At a broad level, the IGIS appears to have indirectly confirmed what Edward Snowden revealed when he defected and leaked thousands of classified documents to investigative journalists in 2013. Those documents included descriptions of signals intercept programs such as XKeyscore, Speargun, Cortex and Prism, all of which were unknown to the public or most political leaders at the time and one of which may be the “capability” in question.

Negotiations over the MOU and entering into service of the “capability” occurred during the first two National-led Key governments. Key was the Minister for Intelligence and Security as well as PM at the time. The MOU assumed that the Minister of the day and perhaps cabinet would be informed of the “capability” following the “no surprises” policy in the Cabinet Manual regarding sensitive, controversial or security-related matters. The MOU specified that the GCSB would be informed of what the “capability” was doing in real time, what its end products/outputs were and to what purposes it was being used. The MOU was also supposed to be reviewed on a regular basis, but in fact it never was.

The “capability” was not a collection technology but an analytic mechanism to which the GCSB delivered collected inputs (intercepts) from a variety of sources. From time to time the foreign partner agency would send emails requesting “feed” settings changes on the “capability” that were done by GCSB personnel. The IGIS found evidence of 45 of these but believes there were more that went unrecorded due to faulty or patchy record keeping and, most troubling, the foreign partner agency unilaterally changing the “feed” settings on the “capability” from a remote location without notifying the GCSB.

That is just part of the problem. Whatever was intended to happen according to the MOU, in practice the Minister responsible for the GCSB–John Key in the first instance–was apparently never informed of the “capability’s” existence. Nor were any other members of the political leadership, even after the Intelligence and Security Ministerial position was divided into two (one responsible for day-to-day oversight and the other a a more general steering role). Worse yet, the senior GCSB leadership after 2013 were also kept in the dark about the “capability’s” existence. Some of that may have been due to the revolving door nature of the Director General’s (DGGCSB) position after the Kim Dotcom illegal spying fiasco of the early 2010s, where general “authorisations” were rubber-stamped by incoming DGGCSBs without paying attention to the details of what was being authorised. It is also possible that lower level technicians with hands-on roles regarding the “capability” assumed that middle management kept their superiors in the chain of command informed about the “capability” and its operational status when in fact no senior leader was the wiser about the system after in came on line. In addition, hosting of the foreign partner’s “capability” was within the law according to the 2003 GCSB Act regarding foreign intelligence sharing even if the GCSB leadership and political decision-makers were not informed about its presence. Everything was lawful and yet in violation of the MOU regarding the duty to keep Ministers and senior agency leaders informed.

Beyond that, problems remained. No legal framework or organisational protocols were developed regarding the “capability’s” usage. In fact, unlike another NZ intelligence partner country that had a similar technology installed on its soil, there was no institutional and legal frameworks developed by the GCSB and Crown Law to specifically govern the operation of the “capability.’ That meant that the “capability” was used without regard to NZ law and international legal commitments.

As an illustration of what could go wrong with this arrangement consider the following. The IGIS repeatedly mentions in his report the possibility of data from the “capability” being used for military purposes, targeting in particular. Even though “targeting” can refer to a number of intelligence-related activities beyond kinetic strikes against physical objects, the possibility remains that NZ hosted a technology that in fact may have been used to do so. Imagine a drone strike in Afghanistan using GCSB-collected data that was analysed and “packaged” by the foreign intelligence partner-operated capability located on NZ soil. Imagine that the drone strike wound up killing innocents as well as intended targets. That makes NZ culpable as an accomplice of war crimes because it was part of the kill chain even if it was not aware of being so.

That brings in the second troublesome aspect of the issue. Whatever the MOU intended, in practice the GCSB had no operational control over how the “capability” was used or what its end products were. Instead, it served as a type of maintenance engineer, maintaining the platform and changing “feed” settings on it upon request (and sometimes not even being aware that the settings were changed remotely). Evidence of the latter only became apparent when GCSB personnel noticed unexplained data outflows at odd times in which there were no setting change requests. Although this was discussed internally by those involved with the “capability,” it was never brought to the attention of the agency’s senior leadership, much less the Minister. It was only discovered by the IGIS during the course of his post-2020 investigations.

In effect, the problem with the arrangement governing the “capability” installed within GCSB headquarters in 2012 was two-fold: on an internal level there was no vertical accountability to their superiors inside and outside of the GCSB from those responsible for handling the technology. This is a gross violation of basic principles of democratic oversight of intelligence operations, where senior intelligence professionals and the decision-making politicians elected by the public are supposed to take responsibility for whatever choices are made regarding intelligence matters. In this instance both the political and civil service leaderships were ignored by their GCSB subordinates, who ran what could be called a type of “dark” operation within an already opaque agency when it comes to revealing or acknowledging its activities.

The second problem is one of sovereignty. The GCSB hosted a foreign espionage platform operated by an intelligence partner country without any meaningful level of scrutiny or control, legal or practical, over what that platform did. The GCSB knew about its technological attributes but little more, and certainly knew nothing about its uses and end products until, at best, after the fact (in just one instance as far as the IGIS could determine). Although the IGIS report does not mention the possibility, it is known that US personnel are regularly stationed at GCSB facilities and, according to the report, were involved in training GCSB personnel in the operation and maintenance of the “capability.” If US (presumably NSA) officers were inside the GCSB and involved in running the “capability” without the knowledge of GCSB leaders and the Intelligence and Security Minister, then the infringement on NZ sovereignty was great.

Think of it this way. Imagine that the CIA sent an undercover officer to work from within the SIS on a project tasked by the CIA. Although the MOU governing his/her work stated that the SIS would know about his/her activities and regularly review them, the SIS had no idea what the CIA officer did although it regularly provided him/her with various spycraft tools of the trade. The CIA officer answered and provided human intelligence to the CIA, which did not share with the SIS how the intelligence was used or what its end product or output was. The SIS “handlers” of the CIA officer did not inform their superiors about his/her presence and no one told the responsible Minister that s/he was even in NZ. How would people react to such news? Well, that is what has been revealed about the GCSB foreign “capability” program from 2013-20.

The irony is that had the “capability” been revealed to the responsible Ministers and GCSB leadership it would have most likely been approved given the nature of the NZ governments during that period and importance of NZ’s relationship with its 5 Eyes partners. Or, given how he governed, perhaps John Key told the GCSB that he did not want to know about sensitive operational matters because it gave him plausible deniability when asked about them. Maybe there was a bit of truth in both possibilities. Who knows?

Another interesting aspect to this story is that it is very possible that the “capability” was installed at the GCSB headquarters in Wellington because NZ’s looser intelligence and security laws at the time made it easier for the foreign intelligence partner to circumvent its own laws regarding certain types of signals intercept collection and analysis. The Snowden leaks detail instances of “bulk collection” and other types of whole-scale metadata gathering that much like some types of mass surveillance violate the right to privacy and presumption of innocence in most democracies. The IGIS report actually mentions metadata collection, albeit without specifics. It is therefore possible that the foreign intelligence partner took advantage of NZ’s looser oversight and legal control regime in order to do what it could not do at home.

One positive discovery by the ISIG was that as far as he could tell the “capability” was not used on NZ citizens or permanent residents. That reinforces the notion that the targets of the “capability” were foreign as well, military or not. Again, Snowden’s leaks alluded to this.

When the 2017 Intelligence and Security Act was promulgated, which superseded previous legislation like the 2003 GCSB Act and brought various legal artefacts into one body of legislation, things appear to have begun to tighten when it comes to internal oversight mechanisms within the GCSB and the SIS. Former GCSB Acting Associate Director General (and later SIS Director General) Rebecca Kitteridge and former Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwynn were instrumental in this regard and met concerted resistance from the “old boys” ranks within both agencies. Although they resisted so-called “bureaucratic capture” by spy agency “old boys” institutional inertia was great and it ran against them. They made significant inroads when it came to reforming institutional culture and practices, but much more remains to be done.

Here the troubling aspect is also double-sided. One the one hand the culture of impunity within these agencies continues to exist, even if in diluted form. The IGIS had great difficulty obtaining records, documents and truthful statements about and from those involved with the 2013-20 “capability.” Even after leaving the GCSB, some claimed to not recall its existence even though they were directly involved with it. This indicates that they are more loyal to each other and their foreign partners than to the governments of the day and the people who paid their salaries when in government service. Wellington, there is a problem.

The second difficulty is that for all the tightening of internal oversight mechanisms, there still is no effective external oversight of the NZ intelligence community, and particularly of operational agencies like the GCSB and SIS. The parliamentary committee on Intelligence and Security remains a toothless gab-fest with no powers of compulsion under oath or any other other form of disciplinary enforcement powers levied on intelligence agencies for a lack of institutional candor or cooperation. Legal punishments for these agencies for breaking the law are limited to small fines and no personal punishments. That means that the bureaucratic culture of impunity within some elements of the intelligence community is rewarded rather than constrained because, quite frankly, agency personnel can get way with things that the rest of us cannot because they are the so-called “keepers of the secrets.”

As things stand, as far as the IGIS report mentions none of those responsible for managing the “capability” have been held to account or disciplined in any way. The suggested agency reforms proposed by the IGIS, all accepted by the GCSB, do not address the issue of individuals discipline or accountability. It seems that impunity is its own reward.

This extends to their incompetence. One of the provisions of the Royal Commission on the Christchurch terrorist attacks was that no one within the intelligence and security communities would be held responsible for failures of a personal or institutional nature. This was supposedly done to encourage people to talk freely about what was and was not known in the lead-up to the attacks, but instead what resulted was a highly sanitised whitewash of bureaucratic and personal responsibility for the intelligence failures that facilitated the carrying out of one of NZ’s worse mass killings in modern times.

In effect, the story about this foreign intelligence “capability” secretly operated from within the GCSB is one about violation of basic principles of democratic oversight of intelligence agencies, of an abdication of sovereignty to a foreign power when it comes to intelligence collection and analysis, and above all, of an ongoing culture of impunity within NZ intelligence agencies that do not appear to have learned the right lessons from the Zaoui, Dotcom or March 15 cases when it comes to behaving ethically and taking responsibility for the actions or inactions taken on their watch.

Which begs the question: in spite of all the post 2017 tightening of internal oversight mechanisms, will it be a matter of when not if before history repeats when it comes to an intelligence agency scandal?

Two offenders, different treatments.

See if you can spot the difference.

An Iranian born female MP from a progressive party is accused of serial shoplifting. Her name is leaked to the media, which goes into a pack frenzy even before the Police launch an investigation. She resigns from parliament, declines to seek name suppression (what was the point?) and eventually pleads guilty to several charges of non-violent property crime involving goods worth less than $9,000 (which is a cut-off standard for sentencing purposes). Her court appearance is the lead story in most media even though there are a couple of major wars and several famines occurring, to say nothing of a number of developments in NZ politics and society that are a bit more significant than the travails of a troubled individual. She and her disgrace are headline news in NZ.

On the other hand there is a male Pakeha “senior political figure” in a rightwing party who during the course of a fraud investigation had someone come forth accusing him of serial sexual offending. Eventually the number of charges grew to nine involving at least two victims. He resigned his senior party position once the fraud investigation heated up, and then he was charged with the sex offences. The offending is historical and related to a well known volunteer service organization in which he held senior leadership roles and was involved with young people in a mentoring role. The judge assigned to the case granted him and his party name suppression in 2023 because, among other things, disclosure of their identities might have a negative impact on his party’s chances in the 2023 election. The judge ordered that the suppression order be reviewed after the election.

The election happened six months ago. No review of the suppression order has been undertaken. The trial of this person has been put off until August 2024. As far as I can tell (am happy to be proven wrong), the media have done nothing to find out why his name suppression continues. The Leader of his party has been asked directly about the case and answers by talking about contempt of court. Worst yet, the media has not asked questions as to why a judge would introduce explicitly political criteria into a decision to grant name suppression in light of the seriousness of the charges, which involve physical sexual assaults on minors. During the build up to an election.

I asked these questions in a series of social media posts. I respected the name suppression order but spoke about the background of the case. Although I received many positive responses I also received a number of veiled threats that I was violating the suppression order by alluding to this man, even obliquely. That is besides the fact that his offending is an open secret in the volunteer circles in which he was a prominent figure, his party affiliation and former role is common knowledge in political circles, and his name has been disclosed in a number of social media outlets and even mentioned in parliament (which even if done under parliamentary privilege and struck from the written record, lives on in the video archive of the debates at the time of his mention). I am told by these critics that it does not matter if others have previously spoken of him in direct terms and that I am liable for up to six months in jail for my “criminal offending” (exact words). If so, I am going to have to get in the back of a long que of criminal offenders and the taxpayers are gong to have to fork out a fair amount of public money having the Crown prosecute us. Selective prosecution, say of me, would only worsen the situation when it comes to the appearance of (at a minimum) Crown bias and (at worst) judicial integrity and neutrality.

I suspect that the threats of legal retribution are coming from within this fellow’s political party. The concern is more about protecting him and the Party rather than seeking justice for his alleged victims or adhering to judicial standards about protecting victims and presumptions of innocence. Plus, the threats have a sort of finger-in-the-dike quality to them, as there will be a flood of coverage once the legal circus hits the road. That is, assuming that things ever get to trial and some sort of pre-trial agreement in not reached (which I think is possible at this point. The trouble with any such deal is that it will likely include some form of permanent name suppression in exchange for a guilty plea to some of the charges).

However things end up, there remains a deeply troubling aspect to this study in contrasts. The first is the media’s behaviour. It involves the hounding the former MP-turned private citizen on the one hand, and the ignoring of the other case almost entirely. This follows a media pattern of going after female progressive politicians for their indiscretions while largely soft-peddling similar behaviour from male politicians. Moreover, it is not as if name suppression prevents intrepid reporters from digging into the larger story of the male senior political figure in more depth, even if as background to the coverage of the trial when it happens (there is plenty of coverage from 2021 to last year). The media double-standard is stark: young female progressive gets the full “cameras in the face and shouted questions” treatment, whereas when it comes to this alleged Pakeha male serial sexual predator, there are nothing but crickets.

Even so, the worst part of this sorry dichotomy is the use by a judge in a criminal case of overtly political criteria as a factor in granting name suppression for a defendant–specifically the possible impact on a political party’s election chances if one of its senior member’s name is released before the election after being charged with sex offences. In my view political considerations simply should not be a criteria for name suppression, ever, and even more so if it involves a senior leader of a party about to contest a national election. That the ruling went unchallenged (as far as I know) and that the media did not question the rationale behind it is a disgrace. It brings the neutrality and/or judgement of that judge into question and opens the door to doubts about equal standards of justice in NZ. Even the appearance of anything other than impartiality and neutrality is a stain on NZ’s judicial good name, and this decision does not look good.

I understand that name suppression orders are designed to protect victims as well as the reputations and livelihoods of people accused of crimes (the sex charge defendant’s name was also suppressed because it was accepted by the court that he could not find a job if his name were revealed and he could therefore lose his house). But in this case the victims are now adults, at least some have come forward already, the defendant has been identified in a fraud investigation involving that voluntary organisation as well as in parliament, multiple face-blurred photos of him have been published that are no impediment to identifying him (especially the ones in which he appears more than once in a distinctive shirt at the fraud and sex charge hearings), and the elections are over and done with (his party did well in them and is now part of government). None of what I have said here or in other fora adds any new light on his identity. It is out there for those who are interested in finding out.

What I have done in this and the other posts is pose an open question about media double standards and judicial neutrality in his case. As I said elsewhere, something smells, and it is not the aroma of purloined boutique shop designer brand merchandise.

The boy is home.

It a remarkable turn of events my son is home 8 days after surgery. The contrast with his September surgical and post-operation experience is stark: what too 5-7 days in September (removal of most IVs and draining tubes, catheter, getting up to walk and use the loo, diminishing of painkillers on demand) now happened in just 2-3 days. His final drain was removed on Sunday and his final IV yesterday. His last chest X-ray was clear. He was then discharged last night. I am truly staggered at the contrast in recoveries and it is only now that we realise how close we came to a disaster last spring.

So four surgeries (two open chest) in 5.5. months later, we now have a basis for hope. Although his energy levels are still low–he feel asleep in the car during the hour+ drive from the city to our homestead, something that he has not done since he was five–the colour is back in his skin and he is already talking about going back to school. We will ease him into that with a visit on Friday, but it looks like the worst is over. He has a few tears in his left lung where it adhered to his inner chest wall when deflated, and his phrenic nerve may have been nicked during the procedure to remove the cystic mass enveloping it, but his diaphragm is working, his lung is inflating and both the tears and nerve should heal in time. Again, the whole process has been a study in contrasts.

It was interesting to see people from all walks of life in the wards. Some clearly have had a rough go of it. I found it refreshing that even though the rules specified just two visitors per patient at a time, the nurses were relaxed about extended family visitors circulating through. The general ward has a steel drum and xylophone available for anyone to use, and because the weekend was brilliant the instruments were moved out to a big veranda overlooking the helicopter pad. The kid in the next room had abut 25 members of his whanau out there lounging under makeshift tents made from bedsheets (the sun was blazing), playing music on the instruments and basically offering not only support to the child patient but also to his parents. In that sense it reminded me of Irish or Italian (my heritage) wakes–attendees are not only there for the departed, but for those that they leave behind. In this case the child is the priority and alive, but the family support extends well beyond the bedridden. When it comes to family values, let’s just say that some folk know how to walk the walk.

Needless to say we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Starship staff. During the seven day stay my son was in the heart ward, the general surgery ward, the paediatric ICU as well as the cardiac operating theatre and recovery room. Every step along the way the doctors, nurses, counsellors, psychologists and ward orderlies were there to help. That even extended to a multidisciplinary effort to help the kid deal with his fear of the very painful removal of the deep drains at the bottom of his mainline scar and in between his left side ribs. Between the anaesthetists, surgeons and play specialists, he had a much better experience this time around and emerged as a free boy unencumbered by his tubes or the drip trolley.

As a bonus my son spent the last three days in a single room opening onto that wide veranda overlooking the helicopter pad. He not only got to watch the choppers come and go, which allowed us to discuss the various models involved and to speculate on the patients and how crews worked in difficult circumstances for the betterment of others. But he also got to play the xylophone and make friends with some resident pigeons on the veranda, two of which he named “Bob” and “Uncle.” I am a bird fancier and the kid has followed in my footsteps in that regard, plus we have birds at home, so he quickly became buddies with the feathered residents, to the point that he was feeding them out of hand and they were perching on his arm by the time he left. To be honest, the best use of hospital food turned out to be when taming the resident birds.

We have all come out the experience much wiser in many regards, and completely thankful for the skills and compassion of others. I extend that thanks to all of you who offered your support as well. Now back to normalcy!

Another Brief on Intelligence Matters.

Although my son is still in hospital he is recovering well and should be sent home soon. We dodged a bullet thanks to the Starship medical staff.

While at the hospital a reporter from one of Argentina’s oldest and most influential papers got in touch with me to discuss the case of the Russian double agent (for the UK) Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who were poisoned some years ago by Russian agents but survived and then disappeared. Some time ago they were reported to be hiding in NZ and I was asked about that by various media, and the Argentine reporter had seen some of the news coverage that mentioned me. He was most focused on the details of the case and whether the the Skripals could still be in NZ if they ever were. But before that he wanted a primer on intelligence operations. Here is the Q&A in English.

Why do countries spy and why do they react negatively to being spied upon? What is intelligence collection and what type of people are selected to become intelligence agents?

Espionage and intelligence-gathering is rooted in human nature. Humans fear uncertainty, and a way to diminish uncertainty is to gather information about uncertain subjects, be they economic, military, natural, political or social. It helps determine intentions as well as capabilities or other factors otherwise unknown. From that intelligence-gathering, knowledge is achieved and uncertainty is diminished. And if it is true that knowledge is power, then power is enhanced by intelligence-gathering.

Intelligence collection and analysis comes in three forms: human intelligence, signals/technical intelligence and open-source intelligence. Human intelligence refers to human collectors, i.e. intelligence agents of the State and non-State actors (say, private security firms or investigators) who collect information from personal observation, interactions and exchanges with people in a designated functional areas, regions or countries. State intelligence agents work in two ways. One is under the protection of a diplomatic passport. Known as “official cover” agents, this includes military attaches as well as other diplomatic personnel whose activities are recognised by host countries but which often extend beyond the official remit outlined in their credentials. If caught and accused of espionage, official cover agents are detained and deported as per diplomatic protocol (that is, they received diplomatic immunity).

Non-official cover (NOC) agents are what are traditionally known as spies. They are the stuff of cloak and dagger stories but the reality is a bit more mundane in most instances. They work under the cover of assumed names, aliases and occupations, for example as businesspeople, academics or developmental aid workers, among many other “covers.” If caught, they are subject to the full penalties of the jurisdiction in which their offenses were committed and where they are charged (including being subject to the death penalty in many countries). They receive no diplomatic immunity. The outed US spy Valeri Plane (outed in 2003 by the W. Bush administration as revenge for husband refusing to go along with their lies about Iraq having nuclear weapon precursor yellowcake stockpiles), who used a job as a petroleum executive as cover for her espionage activities in the Middle East, is an example of such a so-called “NOC.”

NOCs tend to work in a highly compartmentalised or “siloed” manner, dealing with one agency liaison up the collection chain and putting degrees of separation between the down-chain primary source contacts (informants who may be conscious or unconsciously helping the NOC and be paid or unpaid depending on who they are) in order to maintain tight operational security. The means of feeding intelligence up the chain are many, involving technical tools as well as personal interactions.

There is a sub-set of human intelligence agents that might be called “hunter-killers.” While all human intelligence agents will be trained in things like surreptitious entry, lock-breaking, concealed observation (static and in motion), eavesdropping and other such tradecraft, the hunter-killer sub-set includes assassination in their repertoire. The lethal means can include a range of tools, to include poison, blades, firearms, explosives or armed unmanned vehicles (for example, the CIA has its own UAV fleet, as does Mossad, among others). The individuals who engage in this type of activity are, at least when tasked to do such things, not true spies in the proper sense of the term since their focus is not on obtaining information but on acting on information previously obtained, although they may work in partnership with official or non-official cover agents because their priority focus is on tracking and eliminating targets. They are essentially assassins, although they may even engage in broader combat activities depending on circumstance. Intelligence agencies maintain paramilitary units for such purposes, and they can be embedded in or along with military forces. Given the threat environment in which a State operates and the nature of the adversaries being confronted, the number of hunter-killer agents, units or teams may be large or small. Israel has a large number of such people. The US has a fair number. New Zealand has none, as far as is known or admitted. In general and as can be expected given the nature of their rule, authoritarian regimes use hunter-killers more than democracies.

The ideal human intelligence agent must have a calm and even temperament, be able to display coolness under pressure, be resourceful, have a keen sense of curiosity and ingenuity when problem-solving, have the ability to think laterally and “out of the box,” and have a capacity to “silo” or compartmentalize their work so that their real work life as intelligence collectors is undetectable in their personal, public and private lives. They must be able to ward off being compromised, be it sexually, financially or socially. They must be able to keep a secret and rationalize their personal morals and ethics with their professional ethos and obligations. They must have a deep sense of and commitment to public service (service to the State on behalf of the Nation).

Selection to become a human intelligence agent varies from country to country. Along with the traits mentioned below, in authoritarian regimes party and personal loyalties to political elites are a significant factor in recruitment and selection. In democracies, they are not. Modern intelligence agencies in democracies maintain professional standards for recruitment and promotion that are neutral when it comes to partisan and personal politics. They use advanced psychological testing to determine a candidate’s fitness to serve. These include cognitive, physical and intellectual testing, often involving real-case scenarios in which a candidate is placed in a pressure situation in order to evaluate their decision-making capabilities. Once a candidate has been accepted into service and learned the tools of the trade (“spycraft”), they are matched with a suitable cover profile and trained in how to maintain that profile in the field (be it as a diplomat, military officer or undercover agent). There are variations to this scenario but the overall thrust is very similar in most developed States, and in fact in some instances (5 Eyes) intelligence agencies have exchange programs for officers from allied States in order to improve professional standards amongst them.

Question Two: It is said that Russia prefers human intelligence collection whereas the US and UK prefer technological means. Is this true and if so, why?

During the Cold War and the first 20 years of the post-Cold War environment, the US had a great advantage in signals and technical intelligence (SIGINT/TECHINT), moving far beyond the early 20th century techniques of eavesdropping on phones and/or in public and private places or using radar, sonar or advanced photographic techniques. It expanded the SIGINT/TECHINT collection domain to include space and submarine collection capabilities as well as sophisticated electronic and technical collection platforms using infrared, acoustic signature detection, computer intercepts and then cyber-hacking. As a result, it placed less emphasis on human intelligence collection, in part because it is a US cultural trait to believe in the superior benefits of advance technologies in everything from kitchens, cars and television to warfare. As a result, as of the 1970s the US diverted intelligence resources and focus towards signals and technical intelligence collection to the detriment of human intelligence collection. Also remember that CIA activities in Chile, Indonesia, and many other places had placed a stain on the reputations of field agents and undercover officers involved in those activities, so the move away from human intelligence collection was an expedient way of getting out of the unwanted limelight.

As a result, human intelligence collection (HUMINT) was maintained  but in diminished numbers. Given the changing priorities of the post-Cold War geopolitical environment, it left an unbalanced focus on post-Soviet dynamics without a shift to emerging threats such as ideologically motivated non-State actors like al-Qaeda.  For that HUMINT work the US increasingly relied on Israel and other allied countries. The emphasis on SIGINT/TECHINT was reproduced and compounded by the 5 Eyes network, which created economies of scale in that form of intelligence gathering that began to dominate the overall information acquisition process in their respective communities even if human intelligence agents were tasked with following up on information obtained and gleaned by SIGINT/TECHINT means by any of the partners.

The problem with over-emphasising signals and technical intelligence collection is that it often cannot discern real intent by separating bluster and idle talk from a commitment to action. Operational security counter-measures can also thwart effective SIGINT/TECHINT collection. In addition, the trouble with relying on partners for human intelligence collection and analysis is that the intelligence comes “filtered” by the interests of the sharing State, not all of which are exactly coterminous or identical to those of the US (and vice versa for its partners). In recent years the US has revived its human intelligence programs, but they are playing catch up when it comes to recruiting people with the appropriate language, social, cultural and personal skills to operate under deep cover (or even officio cover) in foreign environments. People with backgrounds in anthropology and sociology are high value recruits, but the number of them are small when compared to the amounts of subjects/targets that need covering.

As an example, when 9/11 happened the US military intelligence is reported to only have 3 Arabic speaking linguists in their ranks. NZ human intelligence (the SIS) had none, and even with the recruitment of Muslim, Chinese and Polynesian New Zealanders in recent years, it lags far behind when it comes to people with the requisite skills to undertake both official cover and NOC work given the threat environment in which NZ now operates.

As for the Russians, the situation was different. Because the Soviet Union/Russia and the PRC were considerably behind the US when it came to signals and technical intelligence well into the 1990s, they both emphasized and put resources into human intelligence collection. For decades even that form of intelligence collection was limited to internal intelligence and counter-intelligence (for example, against counter-revolutionaries, some of whom had foreign backing) and in their near abroad or against strategic adversaries (the US and its major allies). Over time the human intelligence capabilities of the USSR and later Russia expanded to have a global reach, something that China has emulated today. Other countries such as Israel have developed similar capabilities, using Jews in the diaspora as collection agents (known as “sayanim”). 

However, in the 21st century both Russia and China have put much effort and resources into developing state of the art signals and technical intelligence collection capabilities Although they do not have the economies of scale available to the 5 Eyes Anglophone signals intelligence network, they have developed sophisticated capabilities of their own. The advent of social media has facilitated and accelerated this effort, something seen in the disinformation and misinformation campaigns undertaken by the Russian signals intelligence agency, the GRU, against Western democracies via the work of dedicated units such as the Fancy Bear cyber-hacking group that interfered with and continues to interfere in US and other democratic elections while promoting socio-political discord and right-wing conspiracy theories (including in NZ).

Hence, while it is true that Russia has traditionally favored human intelligence collection methods, to include hunter-killer activities, that is no longer the absolute case. Both it and the PRC have a very expansive and sophisticated signals and technical intelligence capabilities, including in space, in the atmosphere, on land and under the sea.

Examples of technical and signals intelligence collection include photographic and thermal imagery from space, submarine interceptions (“tapping”) of undersea communications cables (such as by the PRISM system used by 5 Eyes), airborne photography, jamming and early-warning detection, metadata targeted and bulk collection of internet communications, and acoustic “reading” of vibrations from interior conversations on exterior surfaces such as windows. Plus all of the old fashioned techniques such as telephone wiretapping, coding and decoding, encryption and decryption, etc. Artificial Intelligence has been used for some years now even if the commercial applications have only become operational in recent times, and is set to become a dominant means of extracting actionable intelligence from vast quantities of data as well as more rapidly recognising, analysing and filtering threat assessments and other intelligence priorities.

Questions 3 and 4: How does UK intelligence operate and why does it treat intelligence gathering differently from espionage?

Before delving into the specifics of the question, allow me to note that oversight and regulation of intelligence operations and agencies differs greatly between democracies and authoritarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes use intelligence agencies for domestic espionage, paralleling or supplementing the work of police intelligence units that are focused on crime-fighting. In such cases the focus of intelligence agencies is on domestic political dissent, subversion, foreign agents (counter-espionage), and a number of other targets such as environmental activists and other non-conformists who the regime deems to be enemies of the State. Intelligence units are bound by their own internal rules and procedures, which usually are much looser than those in democracies. They also have para-military units of the “hunter-killer” type that are tasked with hunting down and eliminating opponents at home and abroad. The Skripal case is an example, as was the Operacion Condor network operated by the Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1970s. Authoritarian intelligence agencies and agents are not bound by the rule of law but by the boundaries set by the political (often military) leadership of the regime.

In contrast, intelligence agencies in democratic regimes operate according to the rule of law and constitutional principles. They are more restricted in their freedom or latitude of action. They tend to limit their domestic activities to counter-espionage and transnational crime with State or ideological connections, such as when monitoring and countering Hezbollah activities in the Tri-Corner region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay (where drugs, weapons an extremists congregate for mutually beneficial purposes). In general, however, domestic intelligence collection is a responsibility of the police or gendarmes, not intelligence agencies, who only work with the domestic intelligence units of the police and gendarmes when specifically tasked to do so and within defined legal authority.

Because of that intelligence agencies in democracies have a primary focus on foreign and transnational intelligence gathering and threat identification and analysis as well as counter-espionage. They are bound by numerous legislative and legal restraints on their activities and a system of checks via courts and other oversight mechanisms. Unless the circumstances are exceptional (say, a bomb about to go off in a crowded train station), they must adhere to civil liberties and other democratic rights accorded to the population. And even then they often need the authorization of a special court or judge in order to legally infringe on individual and collective rights and constitutional norms.

To be clear, these norms have been violated in many instances by spy agencies in liberal democracies, including in the US, UK and NZ, but if discovered they are liable under the law and can be held accountable by oversight agencies as well as legislatures (if the Executive will not act against them in such instances). Intelligence agencies do not operate according to the whims of the political leadership, but in accordance with and under penalty of law.

In terms of how the UK approaches intelligence matters, it conforms with the democratic model outlined above. It uses legal frameworks to determine the distinction between intelligence gathering by the British State, its allies and partners and even private parties like corporations, versus espionage by foreign States or British nationals working for foreign states or front entities (such as by and for Chinese firms and “friendship societies” connected to PRC military intelligence via “United Front” entities). Having a legal framework delimiting what is and is not permissible when it comes to intelligence collection and the means used to that end gives the British State (and other States in their own ways), legal cover and authority to disrupt and prosecute (often clandestine) intelligence-gathering activities deemed unlawful and illegal.

Put simply, in the UK and other democracies intelligence collection done under official cover is considered permissible up to a point. Intelligence collection done under non-official cover is considered espionage and punishable by law. If an official cover intelligence officer from a foreign embassy goes beyond his recognized intelligence gathering duties (say, by trying to poison a dissident in England), that person will be charged and a warrant issued for their arrest even if they are deported under rules of diplomatic immunity. If a Russian NOC attempts to poison someone and is caught, s/he is out of luck.

Espionage is what the bad guys do; intelligence collection is what the good guys do, and the legal distinction is there to preserve that fiction.

Question Five: Where are the Skripals?

The Skripal’s are likely in a 5 Eyes country. They need to be in a place where they can go relatively unnoticed, where security can be provided for them and where there are not many other Russians around unless those Russians are sympathetic to the Skripals and have been security vetted. They will be provided with fake identities and documentation and take language lessons to disguise their thick English/Russian accents. They will be coached on how to act under their assumed identities, for example, as a retired Bulgarian businessman and his middle-aged daughter who cares for him as per traditional custom. They could be located in a city without many Russians where they can disappear in the crowds or, contrastingly, in a rural area far from prying eyes. That depends on their personal characteristics. If they are urbanites then they would stick out in a rural setting and probably have difficulties coping, much less assimilating. Many factors will determine where exactly they are re-located and hidden from Russian intelligence.

Of course, they may be relocated to a non-5 Eyes country such as Argentina or South Africa. But Skirpal’s spying was done for the UK and 5 Eyes, not other States, so other States would be reluctant to incur Russia’s wrath in the event they are discovered. Plus, other States may be more susceptible to corruption, leaking and not be able to provide adequate levels of discrete but effective security for them. So it seems to that a 5 Eyes country is the most likely place where they have been relocated.

That could be Australia, which has few Russians, lots of anti-Russian sentiment and both large cities and remote rural areas. Likewise, Canada. Even Wales or Scotland might serve the purpose. New Zealand is too small, in my opinion, and the US, although immense, has large Russian expat communities that are not all opponents of the Putin regime and is over-run with Russian spies in any event. So my guess is that they will be in a medium sized town or city in a rural area of a large or relatively unpopulated country or area of a country with few Russians present. But there are people who are experts in this so I can only speculate as to their exact location.

One final observation. The Skripals were poisoned, like other Russian double agents. Russia reserves poisoning for traitors of some importance, not just anyone. People of lesser status fall out of windows, get run over or die in a variety of crashes and explosions, depending on opportunity (remember the Wagner Group boss Prigozhin’s plane crash last year). Lesser rivals such as journalists and whistleblowers get shot. It will therefore be interesting to find out what killed the dissident and opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who supposedly died of “natural causes” in a Siberian prison camp at age 47. My hunch is that he may have received the ultimate (ironic) honour in the way in which his demise came about.

Or to draw the analogy this way: my Italian grandmother was once discussing with my parents the death of a cousin of hers who had mob ties in New York City. My parents asked her about how he died and she said “from a heart attack.” When challenged because the press had covered the story of a low level mobster getting “hit” in some criminal feud, she replied “yes, he died of a heart attack when a piece of hot lead went through it.”

In Russia the heart attack is induced by poison, but only for the special few.

An atheist finds his God.

Given the intensity of the last few days I thought that I would share what I wrote on a personal page because of the kindness displayed by family and friends, including KP readers. It basically summarises the core of the experience. Here it is:

When it comes to my son, for this atheist there is a god and it is plural. God is two teams of human surgeons working in tandem to save his life from a slow death. The saints are a staff of nurses and clinicians who do the before and after surgery work. It is very early days yet–it is less than 48 hours since he entered the operating theater–but if not a full miracle it has been a revelation of sorts.

The surgery took 6 hours, and then it took 2 hours to slowly wake him up given what transpired. The surgery was a mix of keyhole and open chest (sternotomy, for those into the lexicon). They drained him first using the keyholes while looking at the mass in real time through the telescopic micro-camera before opening him up. They went through the original scar, which was tough because there was scar tissue and metal to work through. They excised the bulk of the mass via resection (“debulking” is the term), then focused on the phrenic nerve. The cystic mass came off the nerve and they do not believe that it is damaged, although it will take time to tell whether it is intact or will regain function. But he is breathing from his diaphragm so the outlook is positive even if it takes a few months to confirm.They also found that the mass was moving to the upper right side of his chest so that was removed as well.

They then proceeded to the carotid artery. They found that it was easier to remove the enveloping mass than they expected. Think of an arm warmer being slowly unwrapped. As before (after the first surgery), his heart was not compromised by the mass. The overall outcome is to my mind astounding–complete removal of the cystic mass with only the possibility of microscopic bits left. This is way beyond our hopes.

The down side is that they scraped and cut more extensively than during the first surgery, so the kid is in agonising pain when the painkillers are wearing off. They have him on a cocktail of things normally associated with junkies because he is allergic to morphine (the cheapest and crudest painkiller), which causes him an excruciating full body itch (it turns out the entire class of opioids that morphine is part of is allergic to him). So they are working on mixes that also have a sedative effect, as he has developed a full-on phobia about tubes and drains regardless of whether they are being placed or pulled. Since we can see the vital signs monitor readings on screens connected to the cables attached to his six monitor points (electrodes connected via adhesive plastics), we can see that his heart rate, blood pressure and breathing spike at the very thought that someone is going to “mess” (his words) with the tubes.

Worse than that is hearing his cries of pain when they actually do it. The experience of hearing his cries is both blood curdling and agonising because although his phobia is mental the pain is real, even if it is just the pulling of a tape holding one of his tubes. He now has 3 big ones to go. And to be clear: this is a boy who has a very high tolerance for pain and who is steadfast and resolute when dealing with adversity. He is not a snowflake of any sort. But we also have a sense of perspective, because his are not the only cries we hear in the ward, and they are not just from children.

The best news is that when compared to his first big surgery he is in far better shape and recovering much faster. They have removed 3 tubes including the catheter (a major negative event) and he has now gotten off the bed and sat in chair twice as well as used the bathroom in a normal way. Those are major milestones that he did not achieve until a week after the first surgery and now it is just a day and a half since he got out of theater. All of his vitals are good except when he freaks out, so he has been moved from ICU to an observation room and should be sent to the general heart ward if things continue along the same trajectory. If that is the case he may, in fact, be discharged earlier than expected.

They are working on a protocol to sedate him when they take out the last big drains, which should happen in 2 days. The psychologists and pain relief people are very much involved at this point, even as the surgical teams take a step back now that the most their work is done.

The boy has a few lacerations on his left lung where it adhered to his inner chest wall when deflated, and it is leaking air, but the consensus is that the leaks will seal in the next days and weeks. The lung deflated before the first surgery and did so again before this one, so it was good that they got in before further damage was done. They cannot be sure how much it will re-inflate but the fact that he was doing deep breathing right out of the operating room is a very good sign the the phrenic nerve is working and the leaks are not major.

Anyway, we are much relieved and thankful for the surgical skills displayed by the cardio-thorax and internal medicine teams working together. It is amazing what people can do when working towards a common goal, especially at a global moment when all appears to be just the opposite.

Thanks to all of you who have offered support and empathy for what we are going through. He is not out of the woods yet and there’s a long road ahead to being whole again, but to completely jump the shark on this mix of metaphors, there is light at the end of the tunnel that leads to my son’s future.

NZ on Hamas and Zionist Settlers.

Here is one for the road before I shut down for a while due to the previously mentioned family medical issues. It is about NZ designating Hamas as a terrorist entity, adding its political wing to the 2010 decision to call its armed wing a terrorist entity under the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act. I believe that the decision is mistaken. Here is why.

The move is more about tightening NZ’s alignment with its Western security partners with regard to the Israel-Hamas war and broader Middle East conflicts than about hindering Hamas’s ability to sustain itself. Hamas is supported by Iran and other states, so the move to sanction it under the TSA is more symbolic than substantive. It will have little discernible impact on Hamas’s operations other than to prevent it from hiding assets in NZ or receiving funding from it, be it by individuals or groups, under penalty of law. What it does allow is NZ to more fully commit to the anti-Houthi coalition now ring-fencing the Red Sea maritime channels because it can argue that the Houthis are supporters of a terrorist entity and therefore punishable as such (since the Houthis say that they support Hamas in its struggle with Israel and argue that their attacks on shipping are justified by Article 2 of the Convention on Preventing Genocide and are limited to Israel-bound or departing vessels and their naval support convoys).

However, most of the international community recognizes the difference between Hamas’s political and military wings, so NZ, its 5 Eyes partners and the EU (all of whom have designated both Hamas wings as terrorist entities) are at odds with the majority view. That view understands that resistance, revolutionary, nationalist and independence movements have armed and political wings that share broad objectives but behave according to principles of operational autonomy. Under those principles, armed wings provide coercive leverage that creates space for political wings to negotiate favorable settlements on disputed matters with adversaries. This is also a type of “moderate-militant” strategy that is a mainstay of collective action, but with armed force as the sharp end of the stick. Examples include the IRA and Sinn Fein (with whom the UK signed the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreements and the IRA laid down its weapons), the Taliban during the ISAF occupation (where its political wing based in Qatar negotiated the withdrawal of US and ISAF forces with the Trump administration, paving the way for the calamitous allied retreat and Taliban return in 2022), Kurdish separatists in Iraq (who fought to secure political autonomy from the central government in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein and US troop departure) and more. The point is that armed and political wings are, within the limits of operational autonomy, the yin and yang of many mass movements and enjoy a symbiotic relationship as a result. The relationship between political and armed wings may be akin to that of glove and fist, but the glove is a deliberate loose fit.

Under the principle of operational autonomy armed wings do not share information about real-time military details and planning with their political wings because that risks leaks and intentional or inadvertent disclosures that can be exploited by enemies. In turn, political wings do not share information about negotiating strategies that may involve compromises because that can risk backlash, division and fracture with militants in the armed wings, which are also exploitable by adversaries and often are lethal.

It is important to note that in the exercise of operational autonomy the armed and political wings of a mass movement aim to influence each other. The armed side wishes to present a fait accompli on the ground that backs the political wing into a bottom line negotiating corner when it comes to common enemies. That was the case with October 7. The political wing attempts to restrain the use of force and use the threat posed by the armed wing as a bargaining chip in order to extract concessions from its adversaries. That makes for a two-level game, one internal and one external. It is the internal dialectic between the two sides that ultimately determines the external strategy employed by the movement as a whole.

In other words, the two wings share broad strategic goals but not tactical approaches. Operational autonomy promotes operational security. That is why lumping the Hamas political wing (based in Qatar, as were the Taliban) with its military wing (based in Iran and Gaza) is a case of specious logic on the part of the NZ government. For security reasons the political wing was uninvolved in planning the October 7 attacks for which it is now blamed as a co-conspirator by NZ. It is still needed as a Palestinian agent if any negotiated settlement is to be achieved because like it or not, it will not be fully eliminated as a political entity even if the armed wing is destroyed (and even then, only temporarily). Denying that reality is misguided, especially since the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and discredited at home and abroad even if recognized by Western nations as a puppet Palestinian “government” in the occupied West Bank. With its foreign backers behind it, Hamas is here to stay regardless of how it is “designated” by NZ and others. (As an aside, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are currently in talks in Moscow about a post-war Palestinian government, which shows that at least the PA understands the reality of the situation).

Put another way: For those who think that cutting off recognition of Hamas is a good idea, remember that there must be someone to talk to if a resolution to the war is to be had. They will not be destroyed because they are more than an army–they are an ideological movement that will outlive its militant fighters. You may not like them, and in fact hate them, but like Israel itself, they will not go away. Best then to talk to their political wing even as part of a divide and conquer strategy because the ultimate resolution is political, not military.

The NZ decision on Hamas also demonstrates the lie that is the claim that NZ enjoys foreign policy independence, since NZ has simply bowed to the wishes of its 5 Eyes and other Western security partners against a rising tide of global public opinion about the Hamas-Israel war. That, in the words of a former NZ PM, is the price for being in the Anglo-centric big boys “club.” But there is more costs involved–that of the impact on NZ’s international reputation as a good global citizen and honest interlocutor.

The NZ government also declared that it was imposing travel bans on about a dozen Israeli settlers know to have committed violent acts against Arabs in the West Bank. But let’s be clear: that is just trying to have a diplomatic bob each way when it comes to Israel and Hamas, since the chances of Zionist extremists seeking to travel to NZ is about the same as finding a nun in a brothel. That makes it an empty symbolic gesture rather than an effective diplomatic tool.

It is said that the currency of diplomacy is forged by hypocrisy. NZ’s behaviour with regard to Israel and Hamas is a case in point.

Another forced break.

Well, the time has come yet again for my son to go back into Starship for another major surgery (the fourth in five months). The mass in his chest is growing and has enveloped his left carotid artery as well as his phrenic nerve and assorted other blood-carrying vessels and nerve linkages. His left chest cavity has filled with fluid, putting pressure on his left lung and causing him pain. After many consultations the surgeons feel there is no other option but to try and excise the mass. That will involve a cardiac team as well as an internal medicine team, both led by senior surgeons. The surgery is scheduled for this upcoming Monday and will last a long time as it is a full open chest affair. Needless to say, my wife and I are anxious and, to be perfectly honest, scared. I have a sense of hope but also of foreboding.

We have not told our son about what is about to happen because he is already anxious and stressed out after hearing the bad news (that of needing another surgery) in early Feb. We have consulted with a senior Starship child psychologist and she agrees that waiting until Saturday morning is the best way to break the news. That way he will only have one sleepless night before we head to the hospital on Sunday afternoon (they need to do a lot of prep on him so we head to Starship the day before the surgery).

Basically this is a repeat of what the boy went through late last Sept., when the hard mass on his sternum was removed. But the more fibrous/gelatinous “tendrils” that have branched out along his upper left rib cage have continued to grow rather than ceased growing, much to the surgeon’s dismay. Again, this is a very rare and aggressive type of benign cyst–some of you may remember that it is a congenital multilocular thymic cyst that should have naturally atrophied when he was a toddler–so the surgeons are discovering things on the go, and so far they have not been good. The remaining mass must come out if my kid has any chance of a normal life.

There are all sort of side effects in play, but for the moment the plan is to try and resect the mass without damaging what it is clinging to. It is a complicated and risky process.

The irony is that my son is actually doing quite well at the moment, acting like a normal kid, running around and doing his best to be active. We believe that this is more a case of him trying to be tough in the hope that exercise and pain management will make the fluid pressure on his left lung go away (as was initially hoped last year). Alas that is not what has happened and his brave front notwithstanding, only surgery can help him. We admire his resolve and, to use that much abused term, resilience in the face of this adversity. He is strong and in some respects wise beyond his years, but it is the strength and wisdom of the battle scarred at a very young age.

Assuming that he makes it through the surgery and recovers, we are concerned about the psychological impact this will have on him. Let’s just say that, from being a kid who could get vaccinated and undergo blood tests without a whimper, he now does not like hospitals and is afraid of needles and drains (which are very painful when removed from his torso). I just hope that we can offer the support he needs to get his head right if and once this is over.

I have had some bad moments in my life but looking at the boy’s face when he was told the news that he would need another big surgery is one of the worst things that I have experienced. It was compounded by the lead surgeon’s look when he told us because it had a sense of hopelessness written all over it. He is a good and honest man, and he simply said that because of its rarity and complicated presentation, they are very much in the dark about how to proceed and are just doing what they think is best after extensive consultations with colleagues in NZ and abroad. Apparently this is a case that no-one wants.

All of which is to say that my mind is not on political blogging at the moment, or much anything else for that matter. So I will take a break from KP, focus my attention on my wife and child, and put my faith and trust in the staff at Starship. They have been excellent so far and understand what we are going through.

Please keep my boy in your thoughts. I will check back in when I can.

Article Link. “South America’s Strategic Paradox” in MINGA.

The Latin American multidisciplinary journal MINGA just published my article on “South America’s Strategic Paradox.” I was surprised that they wanted to do so because they have a very clear left-leaning orientation and my article was pretty much a straight-forward geopolitical analysis. This was the article that an editor of the New Zealand International Review felt was too broad in scope to publish. Go figure. Judge for yourself (the article is in English, with translation pending).

Some limits to realism.

Realism is a school of thought in the field of international relations (IR). It provides a theoretical framework for analysing the behaviour of States in the world political system. Like other theories (which in the IR literature include idealism, liberalism, constructivism and systems theory), it is supposed to be holistic, i.e., comprehensive yet parsimonious–it says everything that there is to say about the subject in the least possible amount of words. The utility of realism, as with all empirical theories, is that it serves as an organising device for understanding events and behaviours over time, in this case in the field of international relations. As such, it has descriptive and predictive aspects to it–it explains what was and is, and based on that understanding, explains what should come.

Taking from Thomas Hobbe’s writings in Leviathan, realists posit that because there is no superordinate Sovereign governing the international system, what exists is a state of nature, or as some refer to it international anarchy (non-IR theorists have taken exception to this use of the term “anarchy” because in classical theory anarchy is not equal to chaos and in fact leads to voluntary cooperation between self-interested as well as altruistic parties). Be that as it may, even though there exist international organisations (like the UN) as well as rules and norms (like the Convention against Genocide and Laws of the Sea), there is no superior enforcement power beyond what States can or choose to do for themselves (including cooperation if deemed preferable on self-interested terms). As a result, use of power is the ultimate arbiter of a State’s success in the international system and the quest and maintenance of relative power is therefore a State’s ultimate objective. Power is the product of a State’s human and natural resources and geopolitical position and it is relative to that of other States, but for realists it is the attribute sought after by all because it gives some (even if limited) autonomy and flexibility to their foreign relations.

Although there may be times of relative international stability when rules and norms are adhered to in most cases because States believe that it is in their self interest to do so, and where international institutions serve as arbiters and mediators of inter-state conflicts, they are not permanent in nature and therefore not universally binding over time. Remember that international treaties, institutions, partnerships, alliances and the like are not like contracts, which have defined time frames and are enforceable by neutral third parties (which again, would be the Leviathan is a perfect world). Instead, they are a type of flexible compact or agreement that, rather than be exogenously enforced by a third party, are endogenously enforced by the parties themselves. This is what makes international institutions and norms so fragile: they depend on self-adherence and self-enforcement by member or signatory States when it comes to upholding their guidelines, mandates and principles. Unfortunately, uniform and constant State adherence to institutions and norms is not guaranteed over the long term, especially when a State’s self-perceived interests clash with those of the international community and its agents and agencies.

International relations is a state of flux, marked by moments between periods of stasis when instability and conflict are the norm and rules are routinely ignored. As has been mentioned here before, these are transitional moments between global status quos–unipolar, bipolar, multipolar, or as has recently been mentioned as a future alternative, “non-polar” (where no country or set of countries serve as anchor points for the system as a whole). After a period in which the bipolar and unipolar-led “liberal internationalist” order served as the basic framework governing international affairs and realist prescriptions took a back seat to more multilateral oriented theories (say, circa 1980-2005), the current world time is one such transitional moment leading to systemic realignment.

As a result, realism has again become the theory d’jour amongst international relations theorists. I am happy to see that because I studied realism at Georgetown University (when Henry Kissinger was first there) and the University of Chicago, where I was in “father of US realism” Hans Monrgenthau’s last class and on the recruiting committee that brought John Mearsheimer (current leader of US realism) in as his replacement (Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations is still considered the seminal work in this field). Without getting into the nuances of what is a fairly sophisticated theory, the key points to consider in this revival is that relative power is still seen as the ultimate arbiter between states, that power should be used judiciously rather than expediently, that other measures of power should be exhausted before the ultimate measure, war-fighting, is engaged, and non-existential threats should be treated accordingly. If the threat is not immediate and aimed at the core interests of a State, then it should not be confronted with military force.

Note that for realists “values” are synonymous with “interests.” For realists values are not normative in nature, that is, moral or ethical. Realists are normatively agnostic. Instead, for them values are objective and measurable in that they relate to the value placed on core interests of the State: peace, stability, self-preservation, prosperity, and above all security. Value lies is in defending core interests, not in pursuing ideological preferences or universal ideals (in part because realists do not see normative values as universal. For example, in some societies gender equality and sexual freedom are valued. In others they are not). What some realists will indulge is a bit of prescription when it comes to foreign policy praxis: advising what States should do given context and circumstance.

This is a major part of the reason that realism is now back in vogue. Mearsheimer and others have argued against US support for Ukraine in its defensive war against the Russian invaders. They have argued against unconditional US military support for Israel in its increasingly genocidal war against Hamas and the Palestinian people. For these realists, neither conflict is an existential threat to the US and therefore is not essential to support. Both are considered to be regional affairs best resolved by regional balancing of power (via the use of force or otherwise). If NATO and the EU feel threatened by Russia’s aggression, then it is up to them to confront it because it is they who are immediately affected. If Israel truly believes that Hamas and Palestinians are existential threats, then it alone should confront the threat. US support is not required in either instance because neither involves core US interests and both risk dragging it into conflicts not of its making and not resolvable by force alone. Because of this and much like the case against US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq (which Mearsheimer also opposed on similar grounds), the current US approach to the two conflicts will leave it diminished and exposed, creating a power vacuum that adversaries will exploit to their advantage.

In this distilled interpretation, realists like Mearsheimer advise that the US give Israel and the Ukraine a hard pass when it comes to weapons supplies, economic support and diplomatic cover. It is for them to use their relative power to defend their core interests against those who wish to confront them, not the US, which has bigger fish to fry in the form of a rising PRC as the new “hegemonic” rival. In fact, Western realists see Russia as more of a diversionary threat than an existential one, focusing instead on an aggressive PRC making its move to superpower status at the US expense.

This is by no means a polished or deep analysis of realism in its current incarnation. But as I pondered the re-emergence of realism in US foreign policy debates (with thanks to Jon Stephenson for drawing my attention to some of them), I began to think of realism’s assumptions and limitations. I had not really given much thought to realism’s limited utility in the past because until I moved to NZ in 1997 I was raised, socialised, worked in and wrote about large States, including but not exclusively the US. Now, as I reflected upon the realist revival, I found myself focusing on two analytic aspects of International affairs that realism may not be able to address with any degree of accuracy, much less parsimony.

The first is the behaviour of small States. Small States have little power relative to medium and large States because of differentials in power variables–population, natural resources, education levels, economic advancement, socio-cultural uniformity, ideological unity, shared historical memories, etc. Because they have relatively little power to exercise vis a vis larger States, small States like NZ, Costa Rica, Fiji, Namibia or Uruguay usually adopt one of three foreign policy positions. One is isolationism, based on the belief that larger States will ignore them because there is nothing in the smaller State that larger States want, and little or nothing in the world of larger States that smaller States need to pursue. The second is non-alignment, where small States try to straddle the fence when it comes to navigating in international contexts defined by competition between larger States. Third is alignment, where smaller States seek an umbrella of protection provided by a larger State or States (protection involving economic as well as physical security). There are variations to these alternative approaches based on specific geopolitical position (let’s just say that Namibia and Uruguay are not like Fiji), but the core point is that power maximisation and use is not a major part of calculations in small States beyond recognition that they have little to no power to exercise relative to larger States even if they have relative power over micro-States that may be within their spheres of “influence” (such as the case with NZ, which has in fact historically used its relative power advantages in the South Pacific for and to mixed ends and results).

So it seems that realism is a theory for large and medium States, not for small States even if small States make pragmatic foreign policy decisions based on an understanding of their relative power disadvantages and consequent dependency on others. In turn, this puts paid to claims that small States can have “independent” foreign policies. Isolationism may grant them some independence but it is the freedom to be excluded from world affairs. Non-alignment may seem to be a way to be independent in foreign affairs, but the very act of balancing competition between larger State interests demonstrates that such an approach is not born of independence but of centrifugal dependency (which may be the current case with NZ’s foreign policy stance involving balancing between rival large State economic and security partners). As for alignment, it is just a way of recognising the obvious and maximising the benefits of junior partner status with a larger State or States without sacrificing too much sovereign autonomy or provoking punishing backlash from competing large States with which a small State may have significant ties (which NZ may be in the process of trying to do).

Interesting, recent discussion of NZ sharing democratic “values” and seeking to support a rules-based international order when it comes to its foreign policy disregards the basic realist premise of core interests determining value. In fact, beyond the rhetoric, the way in which NZ trades and pursues its physical security seems to be very much of a “material interests determine value” school of thought, but is contradictory in that it juxtaposes trade and security relations rather than reconcile them (which speaks to the difficulties MFAT has in aligning domestic interests with foreign policy coherence). No realist would suffer that contradiction, which is more reason why realism may be best left to the big kids on the block while NZ pursues hybrid foreign policy strategies in its regional sandbox and further abroad.

The second limitation of realism as it applies to current world conflicts is that it does not seem to understand the existential nature of systemic problems. If unilateral acts of aggression against smaller neighbouring States is not met with a robust and united response in kind, will that not encourage further aggression and erosion of international rules? If large States can take other State’s territory with impunity, can they then not use the conquered State’s resources to launch further acts of aggression on more States? (I shall leave aside the hypocritical irony of the US having to consider such a thing). If a medium sized State can commit ethnic cleansing at the least and genocide at the most in a diplomatically non-recognized but very real small State, does that not open the door for others to follow suit? Since Leviathan is not around to impose order, one would think that realists would understand that it is in all State’s interests for large States to step in to confront existential systemic threats as well as threats to their specific core interests. It is not just about a large State’s power versus that of other States. It is about exercising large State power in a system of States in which the system itself is under grave threat.

The point is that if we accept that international relations is by definition made up of interlocked engagements between multiple State and non-State actors, then threats to some part of that latticework has the potential to become an existential threat to the arrangement as a whole. For large States that lead the status quo sustained by the international system, systemic threats such as unpunished wars of aggression and ethnic cleansing/genocide are in fact existential threats because they undermine the system upon which the status quo is grounded.

I will not get into other areas where realism is deficient, such as the role and behaviour of non-State actors like technology firms and other private global actors, the amplifying and spill-over effects of primordial conflicts re-emerging in the post-modern world, etc. Much of this has been covered in the pertinent literature already. What I simply wanted to do here is to point our that realism is a less useful tool for small State analysis than it is for large State analysis because of its emphasis on State power capabilities and use, and that it does not adequately handle the issue of systemic threats because of its large State-centred focus.

I hope that this came through by the end.

It is not about age, it is about team.

Much attention has been directed at Joe Biden’s mental lapses and physical frailty. Less attention has been spent on Donald Trump’s cognitive difficulties and physical limitations, with most focus being devoted to his insults and exaggerated claims (as if they were not indicative of his mental state). Biden is 82 and Trump is 77, so one would expect that the passage of time has taken some toll on them, both physically and cognitively. It would seem that the difference, as Mickey Savage of The Standard phrased it, is that Biden is well-intentioned but hapless, whereas Trump is evil and dangerous.

I agree with the characterisation of Trump but not that of Biden, who I believe has far more mental acuity than the orange toned weasel. People forget that Biden has a life-long stutter, which from time to time shows up in his speech. And yes, he occasionally forgets or confuses a name or date, but then again so does the malignant narcissist serial liar. Biden rides bicycles and exercises regularly at the White House and home gyms. Trump rides a golf cart from tee to wherever his ball lands, off the designated paths and onto fairways and greens. He is not exactly a fine physical specimen, despite his corrupt doctor’s claims to the contrary.

Be that as it may, the mental and physical fitness of either of these men is not what matters when to comes to their suitability for office. Instead, as a starter, it is their temperament that matters. Biden is measured, calculated and calibrated in his actions, even if prone to the occasional profanity (as befits a guy from a blue collar background). Trump is impulsive, vindictive and petulant. Biden has 50 years of public service as his background, including terms as a US Congressman and Senator, Vice President and now POTUS. Trump first ran for office in 2016, and that was for the presidency that he won. We know what happened next, which should serve as a warning of things to come–and worse–should he get back into office. In any case it should be clear to impartial observers that Biden is the better qualified candidate in this year’s presidential election, above and beyond the elderly foibles of he and his rival.

Temperment and public service experience are not just what differentiates the two likely presidential candidates. The biggest difference is in the teams that surround them. The importance of the governmental team was driven home to me by a colleague at a Brazilian research institute in the late 1980s after George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan as president. I was lamenting the fact that a Vice President who claimed to have seen or heard nothing about Iran-Contra and other Reagan administration scandals had won the presidential election of 1988, and my colleague said to me “but that is why, unlike here in Brazil where we struggle to find someone who can lead us out of darkness and into the modern world, in the US you can have a monkey as president and the machine will still keep on running without missing a beat.”

By “the machine” he was presumably referring to the US economy and institutional architecture, including the government of the day. It was more than one person and although the presidency is a vital cog in the machine, it is not the only one. Trump stretched the limits of institutional resiliency, to be sure, but it bent without breaking and Trump was thwarted in many of his most inane or perilous initiatives by a mixture of constitutional features (separation of powers, state’s rights, government regulations and civil service protections) and the interventions of cooler heads in his administration (the so-called “adults in the room” who acted as guardrails against his more thoughtless, spiteful or ignorant impulses). All along, in spite of the incompetent, incoherent partisan and polarised response to the Covid pandemic, the machinery of the US rolled on with that combed-over monkey at the wheel.

That is the important thing to consider. Biden has assembled a first class team that has steered the US out of the economic doldrums and into a period of sustained growth. He has expanded Obamacare, bringing in millions of people into affordable health insurance schemes, has capped the price of essential prescription drugs, and has funded a slew of infrastructure projects that have brought employment and modernisation to many localities, including in red (MAGA) states. In fact, US employment is at 50 year lows, and wages have started to catch up to inflation. He has passed student debt relief bills and increased social security benefits for the first time in 35 years. To be sure, there are challenges ahead, including getting some measure of control over the Southern border (which has just seen an all-time record of undocumented migrants, creating friction with the reactionary state government in Texas and fuelling Trump’s xenophobic and racist attacks on recent arrivals), and stabilising energy prices (which if low by international standards are an economic benchmark in the US). But by most objective standards, including its international image in spite of its ill-considered support for Israel in its war on Palestinians, the US is generally better off under Biden than his predecessor. Just ask NATO and the EU as well as US Asian allies (on this and. the broader context of US decline, see https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/14/opinion/republicans-isolationsim-ukraine-russia-congress.html).

Biden’s team has a coherent programmatic agenda that addresses the damage done by Trump’s reckless and self-serving policies but also more longer term and not exclusively partisan goals when it comes to the US domestic and international position. The US has a malaise, and they want to remedy it. Trump’s team, on the other hand, are all about paybacks for grievances caused by an assortment of non-supplicants, and even then they are divided about who to punish first. The Trump team is incompetent and incoherent at its core because everything depends on the day to day whims of the would be czar.

Biden does not sweat the details of his administration’s initiatives. He leaves that to his cabinet and senior managers who have expertise in the areas covered by their portfolios. These are technocrats and political operators who know the ins and outs of the federal bureaucracy and Congress and therefore know how things work. Even with a divided and dysfunctional GOP majority in the House, they have gotten things done. In other words, if passing legislation and implementing policy is like making sausage (and old aphorism of US politics), then Biden’s team knows how to do so, the institutional way.

In contrast, Trump has vowed to come back into office with a revenge agenda against his opponents. He has announced that we will use the Justice Department as his instrument of retribution. He and his aides have drawn up a list of 400-500 loyalists who will take control of the apex agencies in the federal bureaucracy and who will re-write civil service legislation in order to engage in whole-scale purges of the “Deep State” apparatus. He aims to kill off entire departments (ministries, In NZ terms), especially those that cater to “woke” sentiments such as the Department of Education, Health and Human Services, the Civil Rights Commission, etc. One only has to look at the writing of Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s leading political advisors who was responsible for his border policy that included family separations and incarceration without charge upon arrival and detention (in spite of many migrants claiming refugee status from violence prone societies like El Salvador, Colombia or Honduras, to say nothing of left authoritarian regimes like those in Venezuela and Nicaragua) to understand the extent of Trump’s dark plans for his next term. His loyalists will swear allegiance to him before the constitution, and his judicial appointments will confirm his authority to undertake the overhaul of the federal government. His Vice President will be a brown-nosing lap dog, and his cabinet will be a collection of misfits and misers keeping what is left of the public trough to themselves and their private sector cronies. There will be no “adults in the room” and institutional counters to put up guardrails around him, and he will introduce fickle criteria to his micromanaging of pet policy projects. The US reputation will resume its nosedive.

And then of course there are the sycophantic opportunists and grifters who always travel in his political circles and who see his return to power as a means to advancing their personal ideological and material agendas.

I will leave aside for the moment the impact these two very different teams will have on things like US-PRC relations, the Ruso-Ukranian War, the Middle East meltdown, rise of techno-sovereignty challenge to the Nation-State, climate change mitigation, and more policy areas ad infinitum. The differentiation line is stark not because of which monkey is driving the machine, but because of who else is along for the ride as navigators and mechanics.

That is why the focus on Biden and Trump’s age and mental acuity is more of a side-show than a critical issue. Temperment is more important, especially when one guy has senior moments of forgetfulness or confusion and the other is an incoherent raving lunatic. Most important of all are the teams that will surround them, and on that score I think that the difference is clear.

Razor sharp clear.